Radium Girls Tells an Important Story Poorly

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New on Netflix, Radium Girls tells the true story of watch dial painters in the 1920s who suffered horrendous illnesses from consuming radioactive material over years of using paint mixed with radium. The “Undark” paint made watch faces glow in the dark, making the watches a hot commodity. Despite the passage of the food and drug safety act in 1906, Radium was being sold in bottles as a wonder drug that could cure anything from cancer to impotence, while American Radium knew full well the deadly effects of radiation. The film tells the story of watch painters who fell ill after consuming large amounts of radium paint from licking paintbrushes. Directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler took this source material and didn’t do a whole lot with it. Strange pacing, flat characters, and some quite tone-deaf moments turned a strong story into an hour and forty-two-minute slog.

 The main characters in the film are Bessie (Joey King) and Josephine (Abby Quinn) who paint watches with Undark in a New Jersey plant. When Josephine starts to come down with a mysterious illness that doctors cannot diagnose, they join the Consumer’s League, a group trying to ban hazardous materials from the workplace. Paula (Olivia Macklin) and Doris (Colby Minifie), two former radium girls suffering from the same illnesses, share their testimonials as well in the fight for justice.

Image Courtesy of The New York Times

Despite a large cast of main and side characters, they all tended to feel flat, and underdeveloped. Despite playing an important role in the film, Bessie’s love interest Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a communist photographer who introduces Bessie to the Consumer’s League, felt more like a tool than a real character. All the personal details we know about him are contained in that single sentence. Bessie learns that he is a communist by catching a glimpse of reams of communist literature in his bag, on which he has a hammer and sickle pin at a time when even a vague association with Marxism was enough to be arrested if not worse. The romance between the two of them feels very forced, as the audience knows so little about both Bessie and Walt that any attempts at tenderness fall entirely flat.

The treatment of the Marxists that Bessie starts to associate with and whose support she relies on through the trial felt strange as well. Bessie is invited to the meetings with very little vetting at a time when communists were considered enemies of the state. It’s no surprise then, that after inviting strangers into their club and openly wearing communist pins at work, that their clubhouse is raided by police leading to one of the most awkward moments in the film. In a jail cell Etta (Susan Heyward) a black photographer who was working with the communists, tells Bessie about living in Tulsa and narrowly escaping the massacre to which Bessie pouts about how unfair the world is, shifting the scene’s attention back to her. Listening to a white woman pout about the unfairness of the world to a black woman who just described escaping the worst incidence of racial violence in our nation’s history struck me as incredibly tone-deaf writing.

The tone the movie took when dealing with issues of class and race wasn’t the only thing that was off. The pacing of many important scenes was all over the place. The scenes in court, meant to be the climax of the movie, were all over the place. The Radium Girls were giving testimony in court when the camera would inexplicably cut to B-footage of them leaving the court room, recovered footage of the actual trials, and seemingly random shots of 1920s cities before returning to the courthouse. What was meant to be the grand fight against American Radium turned into chaos in which I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be watching or feeling.

The emotional pacing of the movie jumped around too. Josephine and Bessie’s fights would be quite intense, but over in a matter of seconds. The girl’s grandfather who they were supporting with their factory jobs poised a minor obstacle to their efforts to find justice as well, but later in the film he apologizes like he was the villain of the film having a change of heart. Bessie and Walt jump into a relationship and after a week seem as if they had been together for years. The only consistent conflict in the film was between the girls and American Radium. All the other personal drama that could have made the characters interesting and relatable was stiff and resolved without real conflict.

Although the bones of the radium girls will glow for thousands of years as the radium lingers in their bones, this movie didn’t linger in my mind for a thousand seconds after credits rolled. If you are interested in learning the story of the Radium Girls, a fascinating and rarely taught chapter in American history, pick up a book such as The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, but skip this film for either education or entertainment.

-Patrick Bernas